Evolving our beliefs about productivity and creativity in response to burnout

Burnout is a hot topic right now. It’s not a new phenomenon, but suddenly we’ve all hit the wall, and everyone’s talking about it – from the Harvard Business Review to social science researcher Brené Brown. Gallup, who has been measuring employee sentiment about work life for decades, is seeing data that shows a separation of engagement and wellbeing for the first time.

At Habanero, we've been having a lot of conversations with organizations about the challenges they are experiencing, and we know burnout is at the top of everyone’s list. We began a journey to learn more about burnout – for our clients and ourselves.

We polled leaders from a variety of industries including construction and development, financial and professional services, retail and wholesale organizations, tourism, health care and regulatory organizations, technology and insurance to understand what they’re most concerned about. Resoundingly, the answer was burnout:

  • 61% of our respondents ranked it as a burning issue.
  • 39% said it was a bit of a worry.
  • Not a single person said it wasn't a concern in their organization.

Some teams said they are “running on empty” and experiencing “pandemic fatigue.”

And the truth is we’re feeling it too. It doesn’t show up for everyone in the same way, or to the same extent, but it’s there. A few weeks ago, we ran a burnout-focused pulse survey, and the results were concerning: the majority of Habs indicated that they were either experiencing burnout or at risk of burnout.

In response, we took a fast-paced approach to co-create a solution to support Habs through this challenging time and test out a new kind of relationship with our work. In this post, we’ll share what we learned about burnout and how we engaged our employees to co-create solutions designed to address the impact of burnout on their work and lives.

What is burnout?

The Mayo Clinic describes burnout as “a special type of work-related stress – a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.” It’s characterized by three related and specific conditions of a person’s feelings about work:

  • Exhaustion – feeling overwhelmed and wiped out
  • Cynicism – the belief that your efforts don't matter
  • Inefficacy – feeling unproductive

Burnout is an organizational problem that often inspires individual-level interventions, but if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we can’t solve burnout with self-care. Research shows burnout has six main causes:

  1. Unsustainable workload
  2. Perceived lack of control
  3. Insufficient rewards for effort
  4. Lack of a supportive community
  5. Lack of fairness
  6. Mismatched values and skills

What is the pandemic burnout effect?

We are still living the effects right now, so it’s difficult to be completely objective about why burnout is so prevalent in this moment. We have some pretty good hunches, though, and we believe that most of it is because all the rules in the stress-processing game have changed.

As we learned in our COVID study, the increased uncertainty and stress in our lives in general has depleted our reserves for coping with all stressors; our surge capacity has been depleted. Burnout existed before the pandemic, but when COVID showed up and threatened our safety, all the rules of the work-stress game changed overnight. Restrictions on our social interactions, increased isolation, blurred boundaries between work and rest, and the mental and physiological effects of digital-mediated interactions all add up, and they’ve handicapped us all from being able to process stress. Work has always been stressful and some of the most engaging work is sometimes the most stressful because we care so much about it. The difference is that before the pandemic we processed our stress regularly. We oscillated between work and rest, focus time and idle time, face time and screen time. The pandemic has put us off our stress-management game.

When the work space and work hours blend into personal space and personal time, feeling overwhelmed by work is amplified because it feels like I never “left” work. Even when I am not bothered or stressed about work, work doesn't seem to have left my mind as I haven't left my work space.
Pulse survey participant

Recognizing the problem of burnout at Habanero

At Habanero, we embraced working from home long before it became a mandatory measure. We have a strong culture, where employees are engaged and connected, so we were starting from a good place. Over the course of the year, we planned virtual meetups and happy hours, an awesome holiday party and a creative and fun 25th birthday celebration for our company, all over Microsoft Teams.

For the most part, things have been pretty great, but even we’re not immune to burnout. As the pandemic has worn on, the topic of burnout kept bubbling up, surfacing in quick check-ins and coaching calls. We had all been learning about burnout together, so we were aware what the symptoms might be. We knew we needed to do a quick pulse on some of the conditions of burnout to see where we were really at. Using a self-assessment tool as inspiration, we crafted our own pulse survey specific to burnout capacity that asked employees to respond to these five statements:

  1. I feel that the work I have been doing is important and valuable.
  2. I have fun, enjoyable moments.
  3. I am often pulled back into work by email notifications outside of when I want to be working.
  4. Lately, I mostly work days and/or weeks that are too long.
  5. I feel productive.

We knew that it wouldn’t provide a comprehensive assessment of the existence of burnout at Habanero; nor was it an assessment of general wellbeing. It was specifically designed to capture a quick snapshot of data that would indicate if the risk factors for burnout were present.

When our team considered what we might do if people were burnt out, I thought, ‘At least we’ll know. I’m not certain what we'll do until we see the results, but we will have to be prepared to do something pretty quickly.’
James Sloane, Director, Employee Experience

What we learned

We had a high response rate for the pulse survey (84%), so we had confidence in the representation of results, which showed that:

  • About a third of Habs were showing strong signs of being at risk for burnout.
  • Another third were showing some moderate signs of burnout.
  • The remaining third indicated low concern for burnout but were not completely unaffected.
  • We collectively needed to change some things fairly urgently about how we manage workload.

Employees at risk of burnout reported feeling overwhelmed by work most of the time. They also felt that they were working days and/or weeks that were too long. They were more likely to feel that they lacked appropriate control over their workload and that they weren’t as productive as usual.

Burnout is complex, like depression, and unique to the person experiencing it. That, coupled with the fact that our pulse survey was anonymous means that our data can’t determine specifically who is at risk. However, we noticed a stark difference in scores depending on employee tenure. This data seemed to indicate that “veteran Habs” were not as at risk for burnout, and “new Habs” were at high risk. Employees who have only been with us for four years or less indicated a risk of burnout in every question asked besides the purpose question (number one in the list above). It’s reasonable to imagine that being relatively new to a job, a culture and community generally comes with feelings of higher uncertainty in your employee experience. Longer tenure Habs still experience the stress, but they may find more stability in established relationships and feel less concerned about job performance, for example. The data that we have collected to date does not tell us why this short-tenure demographic is at higher risk, but it does give us insight into our next set of questions to ask. This is an important and ongoing area of inquiry for us.

Habanero prides itself as being a purpose-driven organization. We share a strong sense that the reason we exist is to bring life to work and help people and organizations thrive, so it was very encouraging, but not surprising, to see that our sense of purpose was hanging on in healthy territory. The purpose-related statement (“I feel that the work I have been doing is important and valuable”) scored well, regardless of age, tenure or other factors. We asked this because one of the three main things around burnout is loss of connection to the meaning of your work. It's the cynicism that what you're doing is useless. Regardless of demographic, that didn't show up for us, and Habs still think their work is meaningful.

Taking action

The evidence was clear: we needed to act quickly to address the risk of burnout. Many people shared in their comments that they were making personal changes to improve things and they were feeling hopeful that adjusting their personal norms around work would help. However, we knew that the risk to people's health wouldn’t get better without some collective action and new structure to help us all change our work patterns. We felt a lot of genuine enthusiasm to change some things about the way we work.

At Habanero, we use agile methodology to manage our organizational priorities, because it empowers us to be responsive and pivot or change course to achieve the best results. Our employee experience team broke down the burnout symptoms we were seeing and brainstormed what we could do to quickly begin to address these issues, with full support from leadership to make some changes. These ideas became the jumping off point for engaging everyone in the organization in a mini-hackathon. Our aim was to work together to zero in on the most meaningful interventions, which we could test using a sense-and-respond approach.

Co-creating change

We hosted a session with all Habs to share what we know about burnout, the Hab pulse survey findings, our plan to co-create a solution and the ideas we’d brainstormed. We’re lucky that all our employees are super-smart, passionate people who understand employee experience design. We wanted to free the unique perspectives of the whole team to work on the ideas, but we also wanted to provide them with some starting points for inspiration.

Everyone got together in designated teams made up of a mix of people with shorter and longer tenures. Each team took on a different solution idea and for each intervention explored:

  • The employee experience problem
  • What we’d need to make the change successful
  • Who would be impacted
  • What obstacles we might encounter
  • The value that would be created
  • What the solution would look like in practice

We worked together online in small groups during our workshop, then spent an additional week soaking in and refining our ideas. We met for a second time so teams could share their work back to the group, pitch their ideas and vote for their preferred solution. Voting on each solution offered visibility around the process. Not everyone agreed on the final results, but we all understood how we arrived at them, so any next steps are rooted in a clear understanding of the “why” behind them.

The result was six concrete solutions aimed at tackling burnout that we could experiment with as a company right away. Tallying the votes, we determined the first solution to test was something we’re calling “rest and flow Fridays,” an idea to create space for more rest and flow by taking alternating Fridays off. Other teams worked on employee experience interventions that will mean tweaks to our tools, technology, process and culture. We have some exciting new ideas about how to elevate our communication, collaboration and recognition game, for example, and we’ve captured those in a backlog to work on over the next term. Our priority experiment became rest and flow Fridays.

Experiment one: rest and flow Fridays

Habs recognized that we need focus time to work productively, and we also need appropriate rest and recovery to maintain and optimize productivity. Many of our clients, communities and society still consider the 5-day, 40-hour work week the norm, but many others, like Microsoft Japan, are making changes that challenge these historical standards. Several studies have shown that productivity can be maintained and even increase with a shorter work week. We believe we can be more productive during the week if we have a longer rest on the weekends and if we set aside time to allow ourselves to get into a flow state in our work. One week, a Hab will have Friday off to rest; the next Friday, they’ll enjoy a quieter day with more focus time for working (and no meetings!). We’ll still be able to provide great service to our clients when they expect and need us, and by having employees alternate Fridays, we set up a new rhythm of rest and flow.

Finding your bespoke solution

It’s tempting to assume that if people are burned out, it just means they’re exhausted and need a day off, but we know from the research that the conditions for burnout are multifaceted. Burnout is also about feeling like you’re not productive and that your work doesn’t matter. Rest alone won’t fix those underlying feelings. From our pulse survey, we knew that our employees still find meaning in their work, so it makes sense that our solutions focused on addressing productivity and exhaustion.

For other organizations, both the symptoms and causes of burnout may be very different. Rest and flow Fridays is a solution designed by and for our people. We don’t yet know how it will impact our risk of burnout, but we’re confident that it’s a solid place to start, because it’s a solution that came from a process of empathetic listening, collective sense making and solution ideation. Now we’ve created our prototype and the next step is to validate the results with our employees. It’s a process we use every day with our clients to help them solve complex culture, technology and employee experience challenges.

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